Menu

Athier Mousawi – Artist Extraordinaire

Podcast description goes here…

Transcript


Asil

Hello everybody, and welcome to another episode of Turban Thinker! So as many of you may or may not know, I grew up in a family of artists, and architects, and engineers. So my appreciation and respect for art is really innate. My sister – she’s incredible – a renowned Iraqi artist, Maysaloun Faraj, and she’s a ceramist as well. And as I was growing up, I was constantly inspired by watching her paint and she had this annoyingly natural and incredible ability to use color and expressive style. And she was just – you know – an inspiration and continues to be in my life. And of course, you all know that I am an Iraqi heritage and therefore an Iraqi born. And – you know – Iraq is so synonymous with the renowned generation of artists that have come out from that region. And a lot of these artists today adorn the walls of some of the most famous art galleries and museums in the world. So – you know – being from that region and being surrounded by art as a child and then as an adult through all my life, and then especially when I studied interior design – my favorite subject was the history of art. And sometimes I think about it and I think -I was so, so in love with it that I might have become an art historian if I had taken a different path in my career – but it’s still very much a part of my life. I love going to galleries. I love going to the shows. And I’m sort of constantly in touch because of my family in the world of art and because it is very much a passion of mine. And I remember – I mean – the artists of my generation that certainly inspired me were the likes of – you know – when I was studying the likes of Picasso and Miro. At one point I was obsessed with Salvador Dali and went to the Cadaques to his home, and was one of the very few students when I was doing my thesis who had really a remarkable opportunity to go to the Dali Museum I think two days before it actually opened to public and toured the corridors and see his work and see where he lived. And then, of course, artists like Kandinsky and Sir Francis Bacon and of course, Rothko, were some of the few that I would spend hours reading about and then obviously going to galleries and museums to experience. So today,  I’m going to be introducing you to a remarkable artist – an acclaimed and an accomplished artist – Athier Mousawi. And Athier is a British but Iraqi heritage, visual artist, and educator. He’s a graduate of St. Martin’s and over the last 13 years, his whole art has been centered around the passion for his – I guess – foreign homeland, because whilst he wasn’t born in Iraq, he certainly has it as the epicenter of his inspiration. And Athier’s art – when you experience it – is about scale, it’s about color, it’s about composition. And it’s this dreamlike weaving of these layers and layers of organic geometric forms that are breathtaking really because of the scale. And when I see his art and when I go to his exhibitions, and I’ve been really privileged and lucky to have done that, it’s almost like total immersion and you’re sort of encapsulated into his art. And it’s remarkable to me how Athier has this ability to translate his inspiration into this artistic expression and really leave his audience in awe. And if you’re lucky to have invested in his work, or certainly experienced one of his exhibitions – and I highly recommend that you do – you’ll be left mesmerized by the power of the message that he’s always bringing into his visual art and the dramatic language that is portrayed constantly through every single piece. So, Athier, thank you so much for joining me from sunny L.A. and really, I could go on and talk about you but I know this interview is not about me passionately talking about how much I love your work but is about me listening too. So thank you so much for coming on Turban Thinker and taking us with you on the journey of your art. So, hello. Welcome.

Athier

Asil, wow. That’s quite an intro. I mean, I’m very honored. I feel like maybe you could just – I could carry you around with me and you can always introduce me.

Asil

You know what, I think that’s probably a good idea. Or at least, you can play the recording to every investor you pitch to in every gallery. You can definitely carry this around and play it.

Athier

Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah wow, it’s – you know – to anyone listening who has the privilege of knowing Asil, she’s being very honest. I mean, every exhibition I think I’ve had – particularly those that have happened in Dubai – she’s been the first one there, the last one to leave, taking the most photos, the most excited to kind of really delve into the work.

Asil

You know, now you’re making me sound like a stalker. We started off on the right foot, now I’m like your resident stalker. And look – it’s a privilege. I have no problem being Athier Mousawi’s stalker.

Athier

Okay. Wow, thank you. Yeah. No, it’s great that you really feel connected to my work. That means a lot. I mean, as you say, the work is – scale is one of those things that you really get from the work instantly. But the more you delve in, the more layers are revealed to you. And so – I mean – we can talk about the work a little bit more in-depth.

Asil

Yeah, we will. But first of all – just for the sake of the audience that’s listening – I want you to tell us a little bit about, or talk us through about your background, the journey, how you started your role in Central St. Martin’s – which is obviously, my goodness – I think every artist, every creative’s dream, is to graduate from the best arts and creative school in the world. So, tell us about that.

Athier

Yeah, it’s interesting you say that. So I mean, I came to art from a young age. I’m from a quite artistic art family and so color and form have been – architects and artist-sculpted parents. So the pairing between geometry and structure and free-flowing organic form and heritage has always been there for me growing up. And I guess – I mean – I actually studied graphic design. So whenever we talk about Central St. Martin’s – you know – the art program is a fantastic one but I came to things as I did my MA there as a graphic designer and illustrator. And I was actually kind of teaching on the side and working with the British Museum and doing all sorts of projects. I mean – you know – you find your feet when you’re in your early 20’s. But in terms of actually -you know – the current trajectory which I feel like I’m on now as a painter, that probably started about a decade ago when I first moved to Paris. I’d been working – I hope not to go too on about this – I’ll make it short. But I’d been working predominantly as an illustrator, working with different brands on different campaigns and all sorts of stuff that freelance illustrator would do. And as an educator – and I remember having an interview with Tate Britain and I was talking about the project that I want to do with this group of kids and the woman interviewing me, halfway through she said – I mean, this is fantastic but it sounds like these are the kind of concepts that you want to maybe focus on and produce your own work as an artist. And so for me, I’d not really thought about taking that route before and I just said – yeah, actually that sounds like the kind of thing I want to do. So, I really kind of restructured the way I was thinking about how I approach my creative outlet. And so I pivoted from being an illustrator, graphic designer, and educator, and I moved to Paris and I took a studio there – part of the cities internationale des arts, in Paris. And yeah, I began painting. And so from there, it’s been a constant trajectory and I’ve had studios – so many different studios along the years – and produced so many different bodies of works.

Asil

So do you think that it’s a fantastic catalyst that she made you realize probably what your true – I guess – calling was or your passion and sort of ignited that? Do you think you were always an artist and painter inside but needed that push just to kind of realize what it is? And like you said in your 20’s, you’re sort of finding your feet – so.

Athier

Sure, sure. Yeah, I think everybody needs a catalyst. You know, you talked about Kandinsky earlier. Kandinsky, his catalyst – bizarrely – was when Marie Curie discovered an atom could be broken down. You know and so for him, he was always dabbling with – do I want to be an artist? Because I think he was a lawyer before that and he never really thought about being an artist. And then suddenly he was like – you know, I could put my hand through a wall – nothing makes sense anymore, so I might as well succumb to this complete creative vision. 

Asil

Yeah.

Athier

And so you know, everyone needs that one particular catalyst. I wouldn’t say it was her – it was that particular conversation. But you know, there was a bunch of things that happened in succession which led me to sitting in the studio in Paris surrounded by blank canvases thinking – okay well, I’ve been waiting a while to begin this, and let’s go. And so, yeah. 

Asil

So, what was your sort of earliest memory of art or creative expression? I mean, was it – were you would doodler? I mean, were you doodling constantly? I mean, how did you sort of come into your – to realize?

Athier

I think it would be impossible to really give the full credit – I mean – to express how grateful I am for my mother, actually, for encouraging my – all of our creative outlets. And so I mean, I was drawing from a young age. I always tried to pair narrative with what I was sketching – when I was having the little doodles and writings about what I was doing – but that happened from a very young age. And I actually think my first big experience of being wowed and wonder and scale came from visiting Iraq when I was six years old I think and looking up and seeing – we got out of the taxi at the hotel we were staying – this is before we moved there, and I saw stars. And I was like, mom, look at these stars – you know – being a boy that spent the first few years of his life in London, I’d never really seen anything like that. And so I just started drawing about them and felt very connected to that and this kind of grandeur. But yeah, I mean I think everyone sketches and doodles. I don’t think it necessarily means that they’re going to become an artist or they’re going to choose that for themselves. It’s just a way of – kind of – visually thinking.

Asil

So how do you – I mean obviously – I’ve seen a lot of your work and been really fortunate, like I said, to sort of experience it. But how are you able – it’s been an evolution like you said. 

Athier

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Asil

And obviously, you never stop experimenting – you never stop learning. And I think especially when it comes to creatives and artists – you know – you’re never going to stop evolving. But when you’re looking to – let’s say – to express that narrative visually, is it sort of a myriad of inspiration that comes flooding, or are you more structured in your art, or is it something that is conscious that you want to sort of your next project to be, or how do you work?

Athier

Um, it’s interesting. Well firstly, titles I think are very important. And I never title – I try not to title single works – I’ll title the whole body of works. And for me, what a title does – it gives an arrow or it gives a direction to my thinking. But yeah, so sometimes I will try and convey a message through the actual artworks or try to respond to a certain idea through the artworks – particularly works I was doing around 2012 to 2015. I had a body called Man of War which is about jellyfish and drones and that was very heavily focused on that – a lot darker than what I’m doing now, to be honest. I had a work called Machine Hearts, looking at the mechanical heart of a soldier and I was trying to visually describe these different ideas. With my more recent work, it’s been that bit more – you know when you said dreamlike earlier – at first I didn’t know you were a Salvador Dali fan – I’m also a huge fan.

Asil

Of course, and I relate – actually, on that subject – I mean, if I were to choose an artist that I’d say would be someone that I could relate to your work and that’s why I am one of your number one obsessive stalkers is because Dali, for me – was such an inspiration. And your work is actually very much surrealist. But more – I mean – it’s in that handwriting or that genre if I were to pick an artist – so.

Athier

So, yeah. As I was saying, with certain bodies of work I’m trying to directly, visually communicate a narrative with what is depicted in the work. With these current works, and I probably say the last two years, the idea comes before and the work is almost an aspiration towards an idea. So, a lot of the work has been about uncertainty and letting go of trying to control chaos. So I’ve been creating these compositions which are – I’ll create them in 3D. I mean, the process is much more technical than I used to work with but I’ll create them in 3D and then I’ll pull them all apart and create secondary floating – almost chaotic compositions, but somehow there’s such a peace and quiet to them. And the idea generally behind my work these days has been to embrace the moment between an explosion and everything landing – that in-between place which seems completely uncertain. My most recent show, I had a scrap of paper on the wall of my studio in Paris which said nothing is certain, everything is melting, and that’s okay. Melting is probably an homage to Salvador Dali.

Asil

That brings me very nicely to obviously your latest exhibition that I experienced which is in Dubai and it was called Melting. 

Athier

I wasn’t so certain about actually holding onto that title when I submitted it to my gallery, but then I looked around at what was going on, and although the work, it takes – I don’t like to use the word abstract – but it takes an abstract angle of looking at that. A lot of the forms are quite bizarre, but the premise behind it, that idea that everything is melting – that we’re in this kind of like transitory period – but somehow we have to be okay with the chaos. We have to be okay with – you know – the uncertainty within these compositions and somehow find beauty.

Asil

I mean, that’s really for me, what I find the most fascinating thing about the whole exhibition is the fact that you chose to do a subject, title, and narrative. And that was – you know – months and maybe a year or so before the realization of actually what is happening and what we’re all experiencing today. And if I can relate – bizarrely – your art and exactly what you said to the current situation that we’re all feeling, which is everything does feel like it’s melting. And then there’s this uncertainty and there’s all this chaos that’s happening. But at the same time, there is a sense of calm and peace. And we’ll get to the moment in just a few seconds, but I just want to ask you – you know – who is the profile of your ideal collector? I mean, who would you be very happy to own your work?

Athier

I mean, it’s somebody who really connects to it. I mean – you know – selling work is something that an artist kind of has to make peace with early on in their career. I mean without that, you just can’t have a career. You know, I wouldn’t have considered a career as an artist if it didn’t seem financially viable – to use a bizarre term. For an ideal collector – would be somebody who connects to the work. I remember I have a collector – I mean I won’t say the name, he’s quite a known guy who does a lot of high-profile tours around his collection – and every time he stops on my work, I’ve been told by people who have been on these particular tours, he will spend ages and ages talking about this particular work that he owns. And he’s so proud of it, and he’s so proud of the story behind it, and how he personally connects to it. And for me, it’s that. 

Asil

Who would have that emotional connectivity?

Athier

Yeah – to have that emotional connection. You know, I think collecting an artwork is a huge compliment for an artist. By and large, it’s somebody really believing in an artist’s journey and wanting to somehow own a snapshot of that artist’s time because they believe in that artist so much.

Asil

And you said something really interesting because you said that you have to consciously make a decision at the start of your career when you’re an artist that you are going to let go of a piece. Because I’m going to tell you something – if I did the art that you did, I’d never want to sell it. I would probably be sitting around today with like five thousand different pieces over the last decade and thinking – oh God, I don’t really want to give this up because I’m in love with it. So it takes a lot – really – and therefore, I totally understand when you say you’ve got to have a collector. And really, it’s interesting because I don’t know if the word collector is really a suitable word. Maybe it’s an admirer or engager or I don’t know – something more than a collector but I totally understand – you know – the description.

Athier

Well, we were all collectors Asil. We’re collecting ideas – we’re collecting objects. 

Asil

We are – some of us are. Well, let’s not get into what I collect.

Athier

Yeah – I mean, how many pairs of sunglasses- the most bizarre, fantastical collection of vintage objects –

Asil

vintage objects, glasses, handbags? Really too many to mention.

Athier

Yeah. I mean, I think we should do a whole podcast on your wildly cool, vintage objects.

Asil

I know, definitely – but the podcast won’t do it justice just like I feel I’m not doing justice for your art. It’s like you need to sort of do a whole – like I said – an immersion and a video and – Inshallah – once we come out of the situation that we’re in, I’d love to Turban Thinker live and really share your art. So, Athier, you’ve done a lot of work and you sort of alluded to that in the beginning on education and lots of projects working with children. So, can we talk a little bit about that?

Athier

Yeah so I mean, I began working with kids – I did my first project with Steven Stapleton who ended up being quite a long time collaborator of mine – who’s done fantastic projects. The premise of his projects were something called Off-Screen which was a project that happened in the Middle East initially, and then he brought it back to a Western audience, and somehow wanted to form this really beautiful bridge between understanding of the Middle Eastern culture for a Western audience -outside of politics and outside of anything that was happening. I mean, the project that they did happened in a pre-9/11 Middle East. And so he saw everything kind of unfold. And this really disconnect between how the Middle Eastern culture was and how Middle Eastern culture was beginning to be reframed. So this project, Off-Screen, was with Steven and the British Museum. And so while I was next door to the British Museum in Central St. Martin’s, I began working with kids. I think the first group, they are 14-15. And then I continued to do that for about three years as an Arab artist in residence for the British Museum. And then off the back of that, I did a bunch of different projects. I think in 2012 I decided to –  well 2011, I did a big exhibition with the National Portrait Gallery in London, where I worked with different communities across the city. I produced huge artwork for this exhibition and I curated my students to an exhibition for them as well.

Asil

I mean, isn’t that sort of food for the soul? And isn’t it wonderful that you’re able to sort of share with that generation and support them and – you know?

Athier

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It always feels great. I mean, London 2012 till 2015, I was working – sporadically – a lot more on the field so whether it was with refugees in Lebanon, or in Jordan, or in Greece, or in Turkey, or Palestine, or a bunch of different places in Palestine. So you know, it’s something that I could do – something I could do well. I think often one has to realize their personal – you know, this is probably something that you can relate to – it’s important to realize where you as a person stands in terms of communicating that message and being a kind of a go-between. So, when I was working with young Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, somehow me communicating my narrow narrative to them as being someone who’s very, very Middle East and also very, very Western, there’s somehow this –  they can kind of grasp it rather than it seeming completely foreign.  

Asil

Of course, there’s that connectivity.

Athier

Absolutely, yeah. So yes, I’ve done a bunch of different projects but I mean I haven’t in the last two years – three years.

Asil

And do you think that’s something that – you know – you’d be given the opportunity to continue doing?

Athier

Yeah, I would like to – I would love to. I mean – you know – surely this whole period has been about us questioning what kind of things we want to do and how we want to define ourselves.

Asil

Exactly. And that definitely brings us really smoothly into the next question that I had for you. And – you know – I’ve been talking for days now to different industries, different professionals, and different people all over the world really. And what’s interesting, and again, we go back to this sort of Dali expression or this surrealism and we’re certainly experiencing a very surreal moment – a historical, surreal moment right now. And then there’s this profound sense of sort of unity and always I’m saying – reset, rethink, and re-prioritize. So definitely, it’s a time to sort of reflect on really what is a priority. Or like you said -you know – what’s my next move? What do I really want to do? And so how do you think as an artist this entire situation is going to affect how, well first, you express your art and the subjects that you want to be involved in and future projects? And how is it going to affect you? Because I know you just mentioned – obviously – your career has allowed you to travel and currently you’re traveling and you’re always on-the-go because that’s how you’re sort of feeding your artistic voice. So, how is it going to be – this new world – when there’s all these travel restrictions, there’s social distancing? I mean, there’s a lot going on. So from your perspective, what does that mean? 

Athier

Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot there Asil. I mean, I don’t have any answers. I don’t really know… I don’t really know – yeah. I mean but I’m kind of okay with that in a really weird way. I’m going to keep making work. I’m somehow – I found myself in Los Angeles, which is where I am now. I initially came to do a two-month – just take a studio and make some work. And I seem to be here, you know. And I’m kind of – I just have to make peace with that. And that’s my reality for a period. You know, I still have my home in Paris – I have my studio in Paris. You know, there’s a lot of uncertainty but yet somehow, it is okay. I mean, I’m producing work. The work I’m producing, I’m really excited by. And I’m just going to keep moving forward with that and experiencing nature. You know – obviously – I’m observing all the guidelines that the city’s imposed on us.

Asil

It’s interesting times, isn’t it? 

Athier

It’s very interesting times. A lot of people have said we’re all in the same boat – we’re all in the same boat. And for me, it doesn’t feel like we’re all on the same boat. I feel like we’re all individually in our own boat. And some of them are mega yachts and some of them are little life rafts and some of them are canoes and some of them are a little bit of floating foam polystyrene that someone’s just grafted to. 

Asil

But we’re definitely floating around.

Athier

We’re floating around, and I think we have to really take stock and appreciate what our boats look like and the position that we’re in. I mean, the only certainty is that – none of us on dry land. You know, in that analogy – everyone’s in a boat. So you know, we’re all in different situations. It’s affecting everyone completely differently. I’m so grateful that – you know – I’ve got running water and I’ve got a phone. I can wake up and I can see the sun.

Asil

Yeah, there is a lot to be grateful for.

Athier

There is a lot to be grateful for.

Asil

Definitely. The world is sort of experiencing that. And it’s really interesting because the entire world is experiencing that together. And so, talking about traveling – I mean – you’ve obviously been to a lot of different locations. Is there one specific place that you think, or somewhere that you’ve never been, that you think – well, I’d love to go to and experience, or someplace that you did go to and think I never got enough of that and I want to go back?

Athier

Yeah, my parents – see my parents in London. I never get enough of that. 

Asil

That’s awesome. So I assume that’s the first place you’re going to go to once the lockdown is over.

Athier

Absolutely. Yeah, I’ll do whatever quarantine I need to do.

Athier

 Yeah, of course. Of course.

Athier

And then go see them. I mean they are doing really well with it. My mom is actually thriving and producing some of my favorite work. I’ve seen it – she’s done actually. And my dad is just really embracing and – you know – loving my mom and just enjoying their time. 

Asil

That’s amazing.

Athier

So that’s what I want to do.

Asil

Of course, and definitely – Inshallah – you will very, very soon. So, what are the current projects that you’re working on? And let’s just say what’s the ultimate project that you love to work on? So two questions there – the current one and the dream. 

Athier

Well, so I had two exhibitions – successively – at the beginning of the year. So one was in Kuwait and one was in Dubai at Ayyam gallery. And so my period here has just been about producing a series of paintings where I’m trying to let go of color or reinterpret the way I look at color. So I mean, this project here is all about personal development – personal paintings. I don’t have an exhibition, but I’ve kind of lined up which feels fantastic. So, that’s what I’m working on now.

Asil

Is there a museum, or a gallery, or is there one wall that you want to hang your piece in someone’s home, or what is the ultimate do you think? Well, as an artist you’re never going to be satisfied, but if you were to say – where’s the one wall you want to be on?

Athier

I mean, I really can’t answer that at the moment. I’m just really enjoying the works being on my wall in my studio. So I can’t imagine them outside because they’re still part of me. You know, that’s a question that you think about when you’ve produced a body of works and it’s all rolled up and done.

Asil

So when this is rolled up and done, I can come back to you and ask that question and then hopefully get an answer.

Athier

Absolutely.

Asil

Before we sort of wrap up – I mean – we spoke about how you sort of narrate and – you know – sort of portray all of your artworks and you write a lot and you have a very specific way of writing, and expressing, and explaining. So, do you think you’ll ever sort of get into actually writing? Because I did say to you that it was sort of almost – it’s not poetry but it’s definitely prose, isn’t it – what you write? So, do you think that’s something that you will maybe produce? Like a body of writing, or all of that? Is that something?

Athier

Um… I mean – it’s not a no. It’s just my writing – I write to give myself clarity on how I want my paintings to be. So I write to kind of dictate how the visual will be. So when it does sound poetic, which a lot of my writing ends up sounding poetic – almost flowery if I’m being honest – but that is just so I have almost like I’m writing a guidebook for how to approach my paintings.

Asil

But then that might be – you know – well hopefully I’ve inspired you to probably work on that because it’s something definitely to be shared. I mean, it’s beautiful the way that you do write and express. And so perhaps one day we’ll look forward to seeing a published piece.

Athier

All Iraqis are poets at heart. 

Asil

This is true. They are – they are creators and poets.

Athier

I mean – My heart, my eyes – you’d say to someone who just made your sandwich.

Asil

True. I think we’re also very generous with the way that we speak. Yeah, we’re a bit emotional.

Athier

Absolutely. There’s a lot of passion there for the good and for the bad. 

Asil

Indeed. Well, Athier, it’s been fantastic. I think this has been the longest podcast I’ve had really. So I mean, this has been really exciting. And it’s always – like I said – I could continue talking about you and your artwork, and – you know – the world has to experience it and I really hope they do. And so, how do they get to know where your exhibitions are? How do we find out about your next – you know – show? Where’s the best place?

Athier

 Well I mean, my website – athier.com – or my Instagram is athieragram and yeah. And athier@athier.com if anyone wants to get in touch. 

Asil

That’s really simple. I like that because mine is asil@asilattar.com. That doesn’t get easier than that, does it? Simple.

Athier

Well you know, for me it’s the benefit of such an unusual name. 

Asil

What does Athier mean – actually – for those that don’t know?

Athier

Well, I think it was my grandmother that chose it and the word is – it means ether. So I guess, the Arabs took it from the Greeks. Well, the word ether – I guess – the fifth element. So, the upper air – the upper atmosphere. 

Asil

Amazing, amazing. Thank you so much, Athier. Have a fantastic, safe time. Stay home, stay safe, stay creative, keep inspiring.

Athier

Yeah, of course. All the hashtags.

Asil

All the hashtags – exactly. Take care Athier and all the best.

Athier

Thank you so much. It was such an honor to have a catch-up, and keep doing what you do, okay? 

Asil

Thank you, thank you. Take care – all the best. Buh-bye.

Turban Thinker talks to Athier Mousawi, a remarkable acclaimed and accomplished artist. A British born Iraqi, a graduate of Central St Martins and a visual artist and educator, whose work over the last 13 years has centered around his passion for his foreign homeland,
Athiers art is is about scale, color and composition, weaving through layers of organic geometric Islamic forms, it is breathtaking to say the least and his ability to translate his inspiration into artistic expression is truly inspiring,